Now What?

More thoughts as we approach the end of MLB’s regular season.

There isn’t a whole lot of doubt left about who’s going to the playoffs this year. With just under two weeks remaining, only two teams in the AL have any chance of making the playoffs (Tampa Bay and Seattle), and it would take an epic collapse by Oakland for one of them to get in. Over in the NL, five teams still have a mathematical possibility of snagging a Wild Card slot, but only one–Colorado–has a realistic shot.

Colorado also has a legitimate shot at winning their division, and if they do, LA and St. Louis will be fighting over the second Wild Card.

So there’s still a bit of excitement left in the playoff race, but the odds are good the ten teams will be settled before the end of the season.

So what do you do when there’s no playoff drama and no chance your team will make it in?

You could ask Jackie. After all, her Orioles are going to lose somewhere between 108 and 118 games this year*. She made the front page of The Baltimore Sun with her explanation of how to survive your team’s worst season ever.

* While it may feel like the Os were eliminated before the All-Star Break, they actually still had a mathematical shot at the playoffs until August 20, one month ago today. Which says a lot about how little difference there is between a champion and a, uh, not-champion in MLB.

While Jackie gives good advice–it’s about acceptance, giving up attachments, and keeping a sense of humor–she doesn’t offer much guidance in what to do while your team plays out their thread.

My prescription is to pick some potentially attainable goals and cheer for those.

Baltimore has already attained their most obvious alternate goal. They can’t possibly set an MLB record for losses. Even if they lose all their remaining games, the 1962 Mets’ 120 loss record will stand.

So, how about a positive goal? Fifty wins is meaningless, but it’s a nice, round number, and they can reach it by winning six of their final ten.

Or there are personal goals. Offensively-oriented fans can cheer for Nelson Cruz’ pursuit of forty home runs. He came up one short last year, but with ten games left, he only needs four more to do it this year. Meanwhile, J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox is looking to be the first Triple Crown winner since 2012*. He’s currently leading the AL in RBIs and sitting in second for home runs and batting average.

* The Triple Crown is a difficult feat. It’s only been won sixteen or seventeen times (there’s some doubt about stats prior to 1920 or so). Before Miguel Cabrera did it in 2012, you’d have to go all the way back to Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

Meanwhile, fans of pitching can watch the Mariners’ Edwin Díaz chase the all-time saves record. That’s about as likely as the Orioles reaching fifty wins, as he’d need seven in the Ms’ last ten games, which would imply Seattle can win seven of ten from the As and Rangers.

Really stats-minded sorts might keep an eye on the fielding stats. As of this writing, twenty-seven players have had error-free seasons. As best I can tell, that would be the most perfect fielders in a season since 2008. Okay, okay, nobody cares about that, except for the folks at Rawlings, who give the Golden Glove award to the best fielders at each position. But I needed something to look for on defence.

Anyway, for the next two weeks, I recommend choosing small, attainable goals. Once we hit the playoffs, we’ll have about a month to soak up all the baseball we can to tide us over to next year.

Late Midway

Here we are at the middle of the season.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Most teams are past the ninety-five game mark and several are at ninety-eight–60% of the season. But the All-Star Break is still the traditional mid-point, even though–thanks to this year’s schedule changes–it’s never been later.

And we all know how important tradition is to baseball. (One assumes that Tevye and the rest of the gang fleeing Anatevka became rabid fans when they reached the U.S. Though they probably would have rooted for the Trolley Dodgers, so there’s that. But I digress.)

Jackie’s Orioles, while not exactly covering themselves with glory, at least made it to the break on a two-game winning streak, giving them 28 victories on the season and putting them percentage points ahead of the Royals in the race to avoid the “Worst Team in Baseball Dunce Cap” (not a real award).

The Giants (hi, John!), despite dropping their last two games to the Athletics, are still two games over .500 and have a legitimate chance to challenge for the NL West crown and a playoff spot.

And, of course, the Mariners, flying high as recently as two weeks ago, have lately put on a performance that makes the Orioles look stellar. They’ve lost four straight and seven of the last ten. That they’re still sitting in the second Wild Card slot says a lot more about the way the rest of the American League started the season than it does about the Ms themselves.

Vexingly, they’re not in the Machado sweepstakes. They’ve got a pretty darn good shortstop already, and their third baseman isn’t exactly shabby either. So, while Manny’s bat might be just what they need to kickstart the offense again, they don’t have anywhere to put him. (As I write this, it appears he’ll be going to the aforementioned Trolley Dodgers. Feh!)

Anyway, the All-Star Break means the Home Run Derby. You know I love me some Derby, even though it’s not really baseball. (If preseason baseball is methadone, what does that make the All-Star Game and the Home Run Derby? Nicotine gum, maybe?)

This year’s HRD may have been the best I’ve seen. Certainly the best since I started blogging. No gross mismatches, a couple of dramatic comebacks, an exciting final round, and a complete lack of distracting charity gimmicks. (The key word there is “distracting”. T-Mobile is donating money to Team Rubicon based partly on the number of home runs hit during the Derby. Good for them. And doubly so for not hitting viewers over the head with their message as has been the case with previous charitable donation promotions.)

I could have done with a bit less Bryce Harper adulation during the event. Yes, I know: local player, heavily favored, plays well to the camera. But the frequent cuts to his latest mugging felt contrived. But it’s a minor complaint, all things considered.

The youthful ball-shaggers were good. I saw a couple of nice catches and only one incident that put me in fear for a kid’s health. And it was great to see them get some on-screen recognition as Pitch, Hit & Run winners. Nobody robbed a competitor of a home run as famously happened to Ryne Sandberg in 1985, but I did see a clean snag just short of the wall.

More nicotine gum tonight with the All-Star Game, then two days of withdrawal before real games resume. (Yeah, okay, there’s a Cardinals/Cubs game on Thursday to help tide us over to Friday, but outside of St. Louis, it’s not a big deal. Certainly unlikely to have significant playoff repercussions.)

Short Cuts

Following up on Tuesday’s post, it seems that Cyber Monday isn’t quite as obsolete as I thought. According to Associated Press reports, it’s been the single largest online shopping day for the past six years, with online spending topping $3.1 billion this year.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing going on here, of course. Retailers schedule big sales because they expect people to be shopping heavily that day, and people shop heavily because they get big sales–without sleeping in a parking lot–that day.

But my I stand behind my recommendation: let’s kill off Cyber Monday as a discrete entity. Fold that big sale into Black November: “The last sale of the Thanksgiving Season!” The income potential will be the same, and the rebranding will allow retailers to slide gracefully into Quiet Time. While we, the consumers, are catching our breaths and allowing our credit cards to cool off, you retailers can be fine-tuning your plans for the December sales and beefing up your server capacity to handle the expected onslaught. Win-win. Who’s with me?

Moving on.

On Thanksgiving, I suggested that Mariners’ GM Jerry Dipoto should take the day off. I’m pleased to see that he took my advice. Not even a hint of a trade on Turkey Day.

But you can’t keep a trader out of the market forever. Tuesday, the Mariners traded the Trumbone to Baltimore. Last June, I likened the usefulness of the Mariners’ acquisition of Mark Trumbo to repainting the Bay Bridge. I stand by that. The Ms needed base runners and relief pitchers, and what they got in Trumbone was a man who hits home runs and strikes out. And, unless your name is Nelson Cruz*, Safeco Field isn’t a good place to hit home runs.

* Mark Trumbo’s name isn’t Nelson Cruz.

That said, watching him bat was–once he got past the first month-plus of horrible performance–a lot of fun. Put him in a park more suited to his bat, don’t try to make him play the outfield, and he should do much better than the 0.8 WAR he put up for the Mariners last year.

Jackie, I know giving you guys the Trumbone doesn’t make up for grabbing Cruz last year, but I hope it helps a bit. Enjoy the show (now less than three months away, figuring to the first Spring Training games).

Moving on again.

For the past few days, I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints about how horrible the news is lately–terrorism, flooding in Chennai, rampant insanity among political candidates, etc., etc., ad nauseum. At least one radio station here has been asking listeners to send in suggestions for music to brighten people’s spirits.

Let’s not get carried away. There’s a lot of sucky news, yes. But no more so than any other time in the past. I suspect an epidemic of Post-Thanksgiving Syndrome. We’ve been focused on our blessings for a week or so, and now that we’re starting to look outward again, the same problems we had in mid-November look worse now than they did then, simply by contrast.

Don’t get me wrong. The bad news is bad. People are dying. But complaining that there’s more bad news than ever doesn’t help, especially when it’s not true. You know what does help? Contributing some time. Contributing some money. Being there for someone who needs a shoulder to lean on.

Then do something good for yourself. Pat a cat. Watch the rain take a tiny bit off the edge of the drought. Heck, go buy yourself something nice in a Cyber Week sale. Whatever it takes. Hang in there.

Unrepentant

As Yeats almost said, “Things fall apart; the bullpen cannot hold.”

For a while there, I was wondering if I should apologize to Jackie. After all, it was the Mariners’ pitchers who gave up those three runs in the eighth inning to give her Orioles hope.

But on further reflection, I don’t think I will. Even after the Ms won the game, the Orioles still had a 57-55 record. Even after winning the game, the Mariners were still eight games under .500. The Ms just needed the win more. And that whole “home teams won all fifteen games” thing is kinda neat. You all know how much I enjoy seeing something that’s never happened in baseball before.

Something else I’m not going to apologize for: Yesterday’s Mariners’ victory over the Orioles. The Os are still a game over .500, the Ms’ are still seven games under. And, more importantly, in a disappointing season, the Mariners gave their fans something to be unequivocally delighted about. Rather, pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma did it.

I talked about no hitters last year when Tim Lincecum did it for the Giants, so I won’t repeat any of the general facts here. A few specific facts: Kuma’s no hitter was the first one in the American League since 2012. The previous one was Felix’ perfect game, and the one before that was the unprecedented “six different pitchers contributed” no hitter. So the Mariners have the last three no hitters in the American league. Nifty.

More to the point, it’s a peak performance for Kuma*. For the past couple of seasons, he’s fought injuries that have prevented him from showing his full potential. It’s a relief to see him overcome his problems and remind us all why we love him.

* I’m on record as believing that no hitters and perfect games can’t be credited entirely to the pitcher, and I stand by that. But even with all the help the team provides in the field, it still takes a pitcher at the absolute upper edge of his abilities–as well as a lot of luck–to make it happen.

So, sorry Jackie. No apologies.

But your boys can rest up on their day off today and enjoy the perfect weather here in the Bay Area. Tomorrow they face the As; I hereby give them permission to sweep the series–regardless of the possible negative impact on the Mariners’ planned September miracle–because that’s just how I feel about the As.

The Mariners also have today off–they’re heading for Boston–and I’ll spend today savoring yesterday’s display of brilliance.

That Trick Never Works

I think it’s time we admitted that the credit card infrastructure is incurably broken.

Hey, remember back in January 2014, I was complaining about having to make the rounds of all the vendors whose bills are automatically charged to my credit card? Can you guess what I spent a large chunk of yesterday doing? I’m sure you can; I didn’t exactly make the question difficult.

Yes, once again my credit card information “may have been compromised at an undisclosed merchant or service provider.” So I was again given a new card with a new number. And off I went, updating the autopay information at all of the merchants and service providers. Again.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Well, for starters, since the vendor in question is “undisclosed,” I have no opportunity to take my business to a different company that pays more attention to security. Assuming there is one, of course.

Second, why should I be the one who has to spend hours* updating all of the records? Online payment is a conversation between two computers; it’s not a one-way message. If a charge comes in to the old number, why can’t the bank send back a message that says “The number you are charging has changed. The new number is…” It works for the web–there’s a whole series of codes that say “The URL you requested has changed. Here’s the new address.”–and it could work for the credit card system.

* Yes, it really was hours, even though I only had to update eleven vendors. A few of them made it comparatively easy: log in, add the new card, delete the old card, and log out. Most of them had additional hoops I had to jump through. “Your change will take effect on the next billing cycle.” “Please enter the billing address for this card.” (Can’t you assume that, unless I tell you otherwise, it’s the same as the card you already have on file?) “In order to enroll for auto-payment, use our simple five-step wizard.” (I was already enrolled, but I couldn’t update the card information, I had to cancel and then re-enroll.) “We can’t change the card on a pre-order. You’ll have to wait until the charge is rejected and then give us the new card information.” Only one vendor had no online update function, but there was also one who hid it so successfully that I had to call customer support and have a representative walk me through the menus to find it.

The banks spend millions on fraud detection systems that monitor the pattern of charges we make. They could tie those into the process. It wouldn’t be that hard* for the FDS to say “Hey, this is a recurring charge, and the customer hasn’t filed a complaint about it in two years. We can send the update message.”

* OK, it wouldn’t be hard technically. But it would cost the banks money, so it would be difficult politically.

There was something new in this mini-fiasco as opposed to last year’s. Last year I was able to activate the new card and then update the vendors at my convenience over a couple of weekend days. This time, the bank automatically canceled the old card three days after it arrived in the mail. So much for waiting for the weekend.

But the real problem, and the reason I say the system is incurably broken, is that issuing a new number doesn’t accomplish anything. Remember, this is the fourth time this card has been replaced for security reasons.

The new card is one of the fancy “chip and pin” cards with a chunk of circuitry embedded in it. This will make it safer to use at store terminals. It won’t do a damn thing for Internet sales. Give ’em the card number, expiration date, and (sometimes) the code printed on the back, and they can charge the card just as they always have. And store the information insecurely, just as they always have. And get hacked, just as they always have.

This card is good for more than two years. Anyone want to place a bet on how many new card numbers I’ll get before the expiration date?

Change of subject.

Speaking of things that are incurably broken, I assume you’ve heard about the protests in Baltimore. I’m not going to talk about the protests or the larger issues around them–at least not today. But I did want to say a few words about one of the side effects of the protests.

You may have heard that yesterday’s game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox was played without spectators in the stands.

I watched the game on TV, and it was an interesting experience. I won’t say that the lack of crowd noise affected the players, but it did seem as though they weren’t as focused as usual. I can’t help but wonder if Samardzija would have given up six runs in the first inning if there had been fans present.

A while back, I said “It makes one wonder if the game would be called on account of disinterest if the last fan left.” We still don’t know, because we still haven’t had a game with no fans present. Despite the security concerns that caused the fan lockout, they still showed up. Portions of the field are visible from outside the stadium, and spectators were lined up along the fence watching the game and cheering the Orioles during that six-run inning.

Despite the chaos and destruction, some people played baseball, and other people watched. Religious fanaticism isn’t limited to destructive impulses.

I’m not going to suggest that baseball solved any of the problems the city of Baltimore is facing. Nor am I going to suggest that it could solve the larger problems facing the entire country.

But for a few hours, baseball allowed some people to take a mental vacation from those problems. And sometimes that’s all you need.